The rain was steady but could always turn sideways at a moments notice driven by a gust of wind that carried with it discarded cigarette competing butts and stomped flat Starbucks cups. Trash carried airborne up from the gutter to the sidewalk and landing at my feet in one of those gusts abruptly stopped. Sticking to my left pant leg was one of those used flat coffee cups placing a muddy stain that would only come out from a trip through the washing machine.
I shook it off and stepped inside the used bookstore and coffee shop called The Readers Kettle. It was more like a book lovers refuge that also served coffee. Nothing fancy just a nice cup of warm joe to keep you occupied while you browsed the dark rows with its endless aisles of used books. The occasional florescent light could be heard humming overhead, but the light would only travel so far and you would find yourself squinting at the titles in the dim light leftover till you reached the next overhead light. I, being the amateur sleuth outsmarted the darkness by carrying a small flashlight in my pocket.
Thunder rumbled far above my head in the sky surrounding the old neighborhood with its huge puffy cumulus clouds that resembled big grey sponges full of warm rain preparing for a sneak attack upon its inhabitants.
I was warm and with my cup of freshly brewed coffee cupped in my hands, I scoured the shelves for something interesting to read. Titles such as The Murderer Within and Where The Wildflowers Grew did nothing for me. I wasn’t interested in maps or quilting or electronic theory. I wanted something from possibly the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Something with some substance that would make me think or drive me to expand my viewpoint, to give me a new frame of reference.
Then I came across Hemingway and Henri Miller, Gertrude Steins Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Her book about Pablo Picasso. This is where I felt most comfortable pursuing the pages of these proven master writers.
I, myself have never been much of a reader with the exception of reading about writers and their craft. It is this that fascinates me, to research the muse and inspiration of these writers and find out the origins and depths of their individual story telling secrets.
I had been reading parts of each of these aforementioned authors and had The Old Man And The Sea on my chest when I awoke and realized the store had closed and no one noticed me in this little alcove deep in the back corner of the bookstore.
Panic began to rise in my chest but I managed to push it back down and listened to the silence of the old bookstore. There was an occasional creek and pop from the probably hundred year old building that the books and I now occupied. I just sat there and listened.
I can’t begin to convey the feeling I had when I heard footsteps coming closer from the darkened aisle and my heart undoubtedly could be heard a good ten feet away when he rounded the corner.
Speechless and unable to move, I thought maybe for a moment I was hallucinating but then I began to recognize the man now standing squarely in front of me. His short white hair and beard were familiar and the white hat he wore I’d seen in a number of pictures. How could this be that here in this closed used book store and coffee shop I would have in my presence standing in front of me, Ernest Hemingway. But as sure as these words are on this page, there he stood peering down at me. How could this be?
“Ah the old man, how’d you like it?” He said.
I,I,I, I stammered like a shy schoolboy asking a cute girl out on a first date.
“I liked it very much.” I said in a hollow tinny voice.
He kind of made a snickering sound, pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose.
“You a writer?” He said in a gruff voice.
“No, I’m a reader. Well I only like to read about writers.”
“Man up boy. You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be a man. I’ve never been confused about my gender and if some SOB approaches me about this, the first thing I’ll do is say, you sir give me just one night with your wife and I’ll show you how much of a man I am. The second thing I’d do is hit that SOB right in the kisser. Got it?”
He stood there staring at me and then a smile appeared on his face.
“Oh, one of those! You probably only look through the windows of the shops and never step inside to buy. Am I right?”
I just sat there looking up with that dumbass deer in the headlight look.
“Well let me tell you kid, though you don’t actually look like a kid anymore with your temples greying and those bifocals resting on your nose; Don’t become a writer unless you want to become an alcoholic. Unless you already are an alcoholic in which case you’re probably already a writer and it hash’t dawned on you yet. If you do wish to pursue the life, the goddess of poverty will sleep in your bed just as she slept with every other would be writer past, present and future.”
“I don’t have any plans of becoming a writer Sir, I wouldn’t even begin to know where to start.” I said.
“You seem like a kind soul, one that would make a good character for a future story, that is if I were still writing. Let me divulge a little secret to you. Writing is nothing more than recording in short hand or in my case long hand the scribbling of what someone else is whispering into your ear. You write it all down and give it to your editor which equates to the old shriveled up schoolmarm that condescendingly tells you where you forgot a period or how not to end the sentence like thus and a myriad of other such dribble and you end up drinking away the pain of the reality that you really have no idea what you’re doing. Those thoughts come creeping up on you late at night while you’re still in your study pouring yet another glass of fuel to chase away the demons.”
I moved the short stack of books I’d collected from the chair next to mine so he could take a seat. I gestured for him to sit.
“Ah yes to sit and rest the weary bones is about all the comfort I can ever expect to claim these days. What I would give for a taste of bourbon, I don’t suppose you would have any would you? Of course not, you’re the one that only looks through the window, never really partaking of the fruits of the sinners life.” He said.
I wanted to ask him about his demise and the violent end of his life, but I dare not. I didn’t know exactly what or even who I was dealing with here.
He went on. “That damned fish haunted me in every dream I had for almost two years till I finally slew that bastard in a drunken stupor with my pen scribbling as fast as I could to keep that demon whispering until I squeezed out every drop of blood and it lay there on the floor incapable of uttering another word. By the time that old man made it back to the dock, I hated that fish. I even took a copy of that book down to the shore and burned it so as to tell that particular muse to never come visit me ever again. I believe it worked, as I never heard from it again.”
I was speechless and felt inadequate to even be here having this conversation with such a great writer of the twentieth century. I held the cold cup of half drank coffee in one hand and his book in the other.
He sat in silence for a few minutes and then began to speak. “There is no darker night of the soul than when you finish a story and the chains of death rattling around in your mind telling you, this is the last story you’ll ever tell. The night sweats come and at three in the morning, the witches hour, you reach out for anything solid to hold on to trying not to drown in the abyss. This, my writer want-to-be friend can last for hours, days, months or years. So think very, very hard and long before deciding to pick up that pen and if you do, stock up on the alcohol.”
I stared into his eyes and felt the depth of his pain and sadness. He stared back and then to my surprise he stood up, pulled his handkerchief out again, blew his nose, stuffed it back into his pocket, turned and walked back around the corner into the darkened used book store. I sat and listened to his footsteps growing fainter till it was silent once again.
The time crept by as I contemplated what had just transpired. Then came the shuffling from the front of the store and in several minutes I heard the bell above the door ring and then again. I waited a couple more minutes and then got up and stretched. I left the books lying on the floor next to the chair and made my way up to the front door and exited. The morning was crisp and the fresh air was exhilarating. Walking to the corner to catch the bus I looked through the windows of the shops along that street and thought about what he had said. I wondered if like Hemingway, would I ever be able to speak with Henri Miller or Gertrude Stein or maybe Mark Twain.